Archbishop Martin’s Homily for the Dedication of the New Altar, St Peter’s Church, Little Bray
This is an important day in the history of this Parish Church of Saint Peter’s and of the entire Community in Little Bray. I am very pleased to be here for the formal re-opening of this historical Church with the dedication of the new altar and baptismal font. After Mass I will have the pleasure of blessing the new Parish centre. This Church has been at the centre of the life of this community for decades. The nearby cemetery is witness to the generations of families who have lived out their faith here and who contributed in so many ways to this community.
The Church building now begins a new chapter in its history. Here the people of the parish will gather to hear the word of God and to celebrate the Eucharist and the sacraments. From here Christians will go out to be a leaven of love in the community and witness to the fundamental Christian understanding of what it is to be a human person and what community really means today and in the years to come.
This is a holy place. The font is the place where we are born into the Christian life. The altar will be anointed to make it a symbol of Christ, the anointed one; incense will be burnt on the altar to show how the sacrifice of the Lord and our prayers rise up to God; the altar will be covered as the table of the Lord around which priests and people will celebrate and share in the one body and one blood for the forgiveness of sins.
On this, the last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year, the Feast of Christ the King, we have heard the Gospel reading about the Last Judgement. It is an extraordinary text which is not just about a future moment in history, but about the very essence of being a follower of Jesus Christ today. It is a challenge to each of us and to our Christian community to remember that being a Christian is never just something inward looking. The Christian life is never self-centred. God is love and the Christian life can only be a life which reflects that love. The Christian cannot be unconcerned about or uninterested in those around us, especially those who are marginalised.
There are many examples in art and literature which would tend to depict the last judgment as a terrible and frightening moment in which God appears as a cold judge, separating people into different categories and separating them from him and from each other for all eternity.
The first thing that we have to remember is that the judgement is not about how we respond to a collection of abstract or arbitrary rules and norms; it is primarily about how we respond in love to the God who is love. The judgment is about love, rather than just being about rules and norms.
We will be judged by how we have loved and especially about how we have loved not just those near and dear to us but by how we have loved the most marginal, the people with whom we would often not normally have any contact.
Jesus lists those who in his own time were the most marginal: those who suffered hunger or thirst, the naked, the stranger, the sick and those in prison. That original list is certainly not off the mark regarding our own times: we can think of those who hunger and are without nurture, physical our spiritual or those who thirst for meaning and hope in the confusion of our world. We can think of those who those who are exposed with little cover and protection to the rough elements of our times, not just climatically but also economically, or emotionally; we can think of those who are treated as strangers, when they do not fit into how we define the categories of respectability and being like ourselves. We can think of those who are physically in our prisons but also of those who are trapped in the many prisons of human suffering or oppression or anguish or distress.
These are the ones with whom Christ identifies himself. If we do something for the most marginalised then we do so because we encounter Christ in them. The Gospel is however telling us something deeper: if we wish to look for symbols of God, if we want to know who God is, then we should not turn to the powerful, but to those who have no outward earthly support. The poor and the marginalized reveal to us who God is; they are symbols and sacraments of God.
The marginalized are also, one can say, sacraments of sin, not in the sense that finding oneself on the margins is the fruit of personal sinfulness, but rather that the plight of the marginalised and our lack of concern for them reveals to us many of the fruits of sin and evil that still exist in our world and about which we as followers of Jesus Christ must be concerned.
The Gospel of the Last Judgement is not just about our own life but about the care of the Christian believer about the roots of marginalisation. The believer cannot but be concerned about models of society which alienate men and women from attaining the fullness of their dignity. In this context I cannot but express my own concern about the plight of prisoners in today’s Ireland where our system has been the subject of consistent international criticism. The recent reports about events in our women’s prison are worrying in themselves, but more worrying because the concerns of responsible citizens appointed in our all our name to monitor standards in our prisons seem to be simply rejected off hand by authorities. In a democratic system what goes on behind the walls of our prisons is a matter of public interest and must always be open to appropriate yet independent public scrutiny.
The judgement mentioned in the Gospel is not just about a future surprise for those who have failed to respond to the call of Jesus. There is no evidence in our Gospel reading to imagine that those who come to the valley of judgement come already designated or identifiable as sheep or goats. They all enter identical; just human beings one like the other. It is the encounter with the Lord which brings discernment into what their lives are about: any encounter with the Lord results in a judgment, discernment about where our lives are focussed.
Put in another way, the judgment about how we lead our lives is not something which takes place in the distant future and which leaves time for us to put off decisions. The encounter with the Lord today and in our everyday circumstances shows up in the light the many notes of darkness in our lives, the darkness which springs when we fail in love.
Today, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. On the final Sunday of the Liturgical Year we remember that the history of salvation, the story of our God who accompanies us on our journey here on earth and throughout history, will only come to its conclusion when the salvation won for us by Jesus on the Cross is fully realised all over the world and within the entire creation. Christ’s kingdom will only be fully realised when our world fully witnesses to God’s kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice love and peace. The injustice and inequalities of our world tells us that we have truly much more to achieve.
Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, but it is not outside this world entirely either. Jesus’ kingdom is already present in seed within our world, through the redeeming power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a kingdom which can be anticipated, even in our time, through grace and holiness, when we as believers attempt to shape our lives in terms of that truth and life, that justice, love and peace which are the signs of the kingdom and of God’s presence.
The Feast of Christ the King is a celebration of community, of community living in harmony and rejecting all forms of division and violence. For many generations this Church has been a place where the values of God’s kingdom have been taught and lived out. As we dedicate this refurbished Church we thank God for the good things we have inherited from those who went before us. We commit ourselves to keep the values we inherited from them alive into the future. We commit ourselves to pass on to the coming generations the same vital Christian values.
The judgment narrative reminds us that the sinfulness in our lives is what causes division and thus separates us from God and from each other for all eternity. The Eucharist is what unites us. The theme of the Eucharistic Congress shows us how the unity which is built up in the Eucharist is the opposite of such separation with God and such division among ourselves. It is communion with Christ and with one another.
May this renewed altar be the place where for years to come this Christian community will be a place of sharing and communion for all, of renewal in our Christian life and of great blessing for all who come here. ENDS